Word of the Week: Lebkuchen

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You’ve probably had it – or know what it is; Lebkuchen is a German delicacy commonly found at German-style Christmas markets, as well as other festivals and events. But do you know the origins of the word Lebkuchen? They can be traced back hundreds of years!

As you may know, Lebkuchen is a German treat that is similar to gingerbread. At Christmas markets, it often takes on a heart-shaped form and is topped with icing that spells out messages of joy. The treats can vary in shape and flavor; some are round, some are spicy and others are sweet.

The origins of the holiday delicacy can be traced to ancient times; the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans believed that honey had magical healing powers, so they created a “honey cake” similar to what we now know as Lebkuchen. Some people wore these honey cakes around their neck as a sort of protection against evil. Honey cake has even been found in the tombs of pharaohs who died 4,000 years ago!

But the German-style Lebkuchen we know today first arose in the 13th century. German monks in Ulm and Nuremberg had heard about the healing powers of the magical honey cakes, so they brought the delicacies into the monasteries. Although the origins of the word Lebkuchen itself remain unclear, it is suspected that it comes from the Latin word libum (Fladen, or “flat bread”) or the German word Laib (loaf).

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And while some Germans refer to it as Lebkuchen, others call the delicacy Pfefferkuchen (“pepper cake”), since many types of spices can be added to the cake (and all spices used to be referred to as types of Pfeffer).

In some regions of Germany, it has also been referred to as Lebenskuchen (“cake for life”), Magenbrot (“bread for the stomach”), Labekuchen or Leckkuchen. In most cases, the words either describe the supposed healing properties of the delicacy or use a more general description of its ingredients or appearance.

But one thing is clear: Lebkuchen has become an important part of German culture. Whether you’re at Oktoberfest or a Christmas market (during normal, non-pandemic times), you’re bound to find rows of Lebkuchen hearts and stars lining the booths of vendors. So when you bring your friends and family a souvenir from Germany, don’t tell them it’s gingerbread; refer to it as Lebkuchen!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

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